05/18/2004 12:00AM

Smarty can transform racing

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TUCSON, Ariz. - What happened to Thoroughbred racing last Saturday afternoon in Baltimore was cataclysmic, so far-reaching that it can impact the sport for years to come.

Only providence could produce a seismic sequence that in two years brought forth a book, a movie, a fairy tale, and finally racing's own Greek drama, a script so bounteously creative that writers would not have dared to offer it for fear of ridicule.

"Seabiscuit" was entertaining, Funny Cide fascinating, but Smarty Jones is earth-shaking. Central casting could not have come up with the name of Someday Farm, with an owner in a wheelchair, with a former trainer who was murdered, with a present trainer who openly admits incredulity at his good fortune, with a low-key jockey who battled demon rum and almost lost, and most of all with a dynamo with a catchy name who is a running whirlwind. He also is a political tool that will change the racing landscape.

Joe Drape of The New York Times was right last week when he called this horse a lobbyist, and said he would do what politicians haven't been able to do in more than a year of partisan wrangling: bring slots to tracks in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and probably to Ohio as well.

Barring misfortune, Smarty Jones will win the Triple Crown, and the hearts of kids who never heard of horse racing and elders who never cared about it. He already has become a national hero, and if he remains healthy - a huge "if" with all Thoroughbreds - he will race into immortality.

His devastating stretch run at Pimlico was reminiscent, as many have observed, of Secretariat's Belmont, and where Secretariat had the polished grace and irresistible charm of Penny Chenery behind him to sell Thoroughbred racing, Smarty Jones has a cast of characters made for television.

One man who understood all of this more than others at Pimlico was Tim Smith of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, smiling expansively on the victory portico as Bob Costas ran through the post-Preakness ritual.

Without ever pulling a handle or pushing a button or even touching the machine, Smith was inundated in a rush of gold. He was smiling because he knew that his assignment - to help revive and resuscitate racing - had just been accomplished for the year, not by him or his brass-heavy staff, but by the shining chestnut coat of Smarty Jones.

While the cameras positioned at Philadelphia Park caught the spirit of fandom at that track, they also mirrored the delight of the nation coast to coast. America loves nothing more than an underdog champion, and it has one.

Philadelphia Park, by the way, was maligned by the racing press during the weeks of Smarty Jones's coronation. It was depicted as some backwater bullring, "a little track," when in fact it is one of the most commodious, pleasant, and well-planned racing plants in the country, with the top racing professional Hal Handel and his English bosses responsible for having made it so with its rejuvenation and renovation.

It may not entertain the royalty of racing, but it sent out racing's new king and ruler, a horse destined for unprecedented popularity unless unsoundness befalls him. It seems clear that the rest of the present crop of 3-year-olds is overmatched and outclassed by this exceptional runner.

So the sun and the stars have shone brightly on the sport, and may continue to do so in a season that now takes on a sheen of excitement that flickered out last year when Funny Cide ran out of gas.

It is asking a lot to expect the drama of the last three weeks to be sustained, but the momentum is there, and racing has a hero to do what misguided commercials and other futile efforts have failed to do: generate a nationwide enthusiasm that, unlike a book or a movie, can translate into people taking a daily interest in what is happening in the sport, and going out to see it.

It proves again that the one sure thing that can save racing is a charismatic horse. This one will set still another record when he shows up at Belmont, where charisma is understood and appreciated. If the sun continues to shine on the sport, he will draw the biggest crowd in Belmont's storied history, and its highest television rating as well.